“Rabbi Yishmael said: Be yielding to a superior, gentle to the young (lit., ‘black of hair’), and receive every person with cheerfulness.”
This mishna offers some practical advice regarding how we should relate to others. Almost all of us have both people who look up to us and those who look down on us (whether rightfully or not). Regarding our superiors, R. Yishmael tells us to humble ourselves and accept their authority submissively. Our mishna here uses the Hebrew word “kal”, which we translated as “be yielding” (an excellent translation brought to you by my ArtScroll prayer book). The literal meaning of this word is “light”. The intention is that we should not feel “heavy” — full of ourselves and our egos — as we face authority. We must accept that there are people who know better than us, or at least who possess the authority before which we must submit. In a small way, this reminds us that ultimately we are not our own masters. We must humble ourselves before G-d just as we bow before our temporal authorities.
At the same time, R. Yishmael instructs us to go easy on those beneath us on the totem pole. Although we sometimes must wield our own authority over others, we — who have been and probably still are in the shoes of the underling ourselves — should make every effort to put our subordinates at ease. The Hebrew adjective used here by our mishna is “noach” — which means easy, gentle, relaxed. (Unfortunately, nuances are always lost in the translation.)
The commentators (Maimonides, Rabbeinu Yonah) point out that we cannot always be “light” with others as we must be with our superiors. Sometimes we must wield authority over others — whether our children, students or employees — and see to it that they follow orders properly. For their own sakes as much as ours, they need to know who’s boss. However, we must do so gently. We are instructing, not humiliating or crushing. Our charges — regardless of their age — are human beings as we, and deserve the respect due to beings fashioned in the image of G-d.
Human nature is sadly not always this way. We do not always take the experience of being mistreated, of being lorded over by others, and learn to treat our own subordinates any better. Psychologically, there is a strong tendency to act out our own frustrations, to avenge the world for our own pent up feelings of inferiority by playing god with our own inferiors. The proportion of child abusers who were abused themselves in their childhoods is striking — and very telling. Deep down people with crushed egos crave to be that hated and ruthless despot, before whom others grovel in miserable helplessness.
On a more pedestrian level, if you were yelled at by the boss today, chances are that much greater that you will yell at your kids. And it’s not only because you’re fed up. It also serves as a psychological, if illusory, means of restoring your own ego. I can crush people too. People are almost inexplicably drawn to re-enacting — with a vengeance — the harsh experiences life has dealt them. The freed slave becomes the most oppressive tyrant.
Only the most noble of souls learns the lesson of our mishna — seeing the evil of his oppressors and consciously deciding that this is what he will *not* become. The Torah instructs us: “And you shall love the stranger, for strangers you were in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19). And earlier: “And do not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). And again: “And when you send him [the slave] free from you, do not send him empty-handed. Liberally furnish him of your flock, your threshing floor, and your winepress… And you shall remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt… therefore I command you in this matter today.” (Deut. 15:13-15). Take your worst experiences — and we’ve all had them — and learn how *not* to treat others. Don’t try to avenge your own suffering on the rest of mankind. It will solve nothing — other than perpetuating the same vicious cycle of hatred and frustration.
And this is as well the lesson of our mishna. Learn positive lessons from negative experiences. You may have inferiors and you may have to wield authority, but do it in the way you would have wanted your own superiors to have treated you. Realize that if your parents yelled (or yell) at you, they were probably yelled at by their parents before them (regardless of the image they depict of how parents were treated in the “old days”) ;-), and try not to continue the family tradition. The common theme in all our relationships is, as our mishna concludes: “receive every person with cheerfulness.” Our basic approach — of care and compassion for others — does not vary regardless of whom we are interacting with.
I would now like to bring out this concept from a different yet perhaps not-so-different perspective — that of Jewish history. I believe an equally powerful lesson will emerge.
Throughout history the Jews have arguably been the most oppressed minority to have walked the face of the earth. (Others who had it half so bad usually didn’t lasted long enough to enter our league. Makes one wonder just why G-d has preserved us for so long…) At the same time, we constantly yearn and pray for the arrival of the Messiah. When he arrives, he will right the wrongs of the world. He will gather the exiled Jewish people, re-establish King David’s dynasty, rebuild the Temple, and unite the world in recognition and service of G-d.
But perhaps even more significantly for us, all the nations will become subservient to Israel. The Jews will at last be recognized as G-d’s chosen people and will receive due credit for their devotion and perseverance throughout so many centuries of injustice and persecution. And the enemies of the Jews, who have had the upper hand for so long, will face the full brunt of the L-rd’s wrath. The open anti-Semites will be decimated and destroyed, never to be heard from again. The covert bigots will be exposed and humiliated; they will cower before us in pathetic terror. Centuries of long-forgotten and unavenged injustices perpetrated against every Jew will be out in the open and compensated to the fullest. G-d has not forgotten a single tear or drop of Jewish blood. The Messiah will have a lot of scores to settle.
(We agonize today over trifling compensations for Holocaust survivors or their descendants. Believe me, the world ain’t seen nothing yet! And that’s a promise!)
Yet when we pray for the Messiah, we are not asking that we be on top or that we become the slave turned tyrant. We are not even asking for sweet revenge. Many Jews have met their deaths at the hands of their enemies with the “ani ma’amin” on their lips — proclaiming their belief that the Messiah will eventually arrive and bring about our salvation. Their intention was not: “You’re beating us up now, but one day we’ll beat you up!” Jews preparing themselves to die in sanctification of G-d’s Name did not have such pettiness on their minds.
Rather, the intention of such people was as follows. We recognize that life has a purpose and that the world will reach its ultimate fruition in the age of the Messiah. And somehow, the many tragedies of our lives are bringing the world closer to that purpose. We do not see the world as a place of falsehood, a place of the concealment of G-d’s reality. This world is not simply a place in which the righteous are miserable and downtrodden, a dark world we must suffer through in order to earn the World to Come.
No, the physical world too will one day be a reflection of G-d. The world’s ultimate purpose is to reflect the G-d who created it. And such people at the moment of their deaths asserted this. At the time in their lives when G-d appeared most distant and most concealed from them, they accepted that in reality G-d’s guiding Hand is always with them. For reasons only He can comprehend this is the necessary suffering the world must undergo to reach its salvation. Yet somehow it is a step towards Messiah and the ultimate redemption. Their deaths are a part of a process of revealing, rather than hiding, G-d’s ineffable Name. (Based on a lecture heard from R. Yochanan Zweig)
Likewise, throughout our years of oppression, when we have prayed for Messiah, it has never been a plea that we become masters of humanity or that we once and for all be granted the luxury of sweet revenge. This will come, to be sure, but our intentions are far more noble. In fact, if anything our prayers serve as a reconciliation between ourselves and mankind — the very mankind which today oppresses us so. For the era of Messiah is one in which not only we will be reunited with G-d, but all mankind will recognize G-d and earn its share of eternity. We view our suffering at the hands of the Gentiles and turn around and ask that Messiah bring all nations to recognition of G-d — not that we will one day oppress our oppressors, but that we will correct the evils of the world — and through that lead our very oppressors to salvation.
Thus, in days to come, Israel will be ascendant, but we will use our ascendancy to become a light unto the nations, and to teach mankind the way of G-d. For G-d has a greater mission for this world, one in which practically all nations will have a share. Under Messiah’s reign, the world will reach its zenith and fulfillment — when all mankind will unite in proclaiming G-d’s existence and omnipotence. “And the L-rd will be King over the entire land; on that day the L-rd will be one and His Name will be one” (Zechariah 14:9).
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.